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President's Professor Richard Creath is academic 'tour de force'

March 03, 2011

This article is part of a series that looks at ASU's 2010 Regents' Professors and President's Professors.

Philosophy and the history and philosophy of science fall outside the radar of some students, but for the 10,000 or so of those who have tapped into these courses taught by ASU President’s Professor Richard (Rick) Creath, he has wrought change in their lives.

From Mozart to scientific revolutions, all are within the purview of this gifted teacher and internationally-recognized scholar. Creath’s dedication, hard work and imagination have energized lower- to upper-division courses, majors and non-majors, undergraduate and graduate students, and enlivened lectures, large and notably small, such as the Barrett Honors College seminar, “The Human Event.”

Creath’s intellectual flexibility and acumen have made him one of the leading authorities in the world on the work of two of the 20th century’s most important philosophers, Rudolf Carnap and W.V.O. Quine – work that his School of Life Sciences colleague, Brad Armendt, calls “absolutely central to the most important developments in logic, epistemology and philosophy of science in the last century.”

James Collins, Virginia M. Ullman Professor of Natural History and the Environment in the School of Life Sciences, says that Creath has created a bright trail of sustained and significant contributions to teaching and learning.

“His teaching and research are integrated in ways that they inform each other," Collins says. "Student evaluations of classes, letters from former students, and the comments of peers provide clear indicators of student learning and success that span decades.”

Collin also notes that philosophy is not an abstract subject for Creath – it is a vantage point for viewing the world that also provides rational ways of dealing with that world.

Of philosophy, Creath himself observes that “each of us confronts such differences in perspective every day among family, friends, co-workers and fellow citizens, not to mention internationally. Most of all, each of us will spend the rest of our lives facing new situations – and life doesn’t come with answers at the back of the book. We will need to see alternatives, evaluate them, fashion new perspectives as best we can, and articulate the results of our efforts.”

Ultimately, however, Collins believes that it has been Creath’s ability to reach out and connect with students, his enthusiasm, his mentorship and his open-door policy that has touched so many over the last 35 years.

For example, ASU alumnus Eddie Genna, who went on to get his law degree, a graduate degree in philosophy and now teaches at Phoenix College, recalls: “Professor Creath made a profound difference in my life. His counsel and reassurance was pivotal in helping me both to puzzle through my personal situation and to stay on track with my studies. I remember gratefully the time and attention he showed to me as a student and as a person, and I hope to repay that kindness by showing the same caring for my own students.”

What was most astonishing for ASU graduate Brandon Levitan was “the mentoring I received from Dr. Creath outside of class. I easily spent more time outside of class discussing the material with Dr. Creath than within. As much as I truly enjoyed my law school experience, I can’t think of a single law professor at University of Chicago who would be willing to spend that kind of time outside of class with a student.”

Levitan’s words are echoed in similar reflections by ASU alumnus Andrew Beck, now a University of California, San Diego, doctoral student, and two generations in the Lakin family. Douglas Lakin, who went on to leverage his ASU degree in philosophy into a medical degree from Johns Hopkins University and whose son, Brian, attended ASU’s Barrett Honors College, calls Creath “a tour de force in the classroom, and I could only envy my son‘s academic experience, thinking back on my ‘good old days’ at ASU.”

Many of Creath’s students have gone on to do great things. But they all agree that is has been Creath that kept them going, allowed them to believe in themselves and to reach the goals that they did not think possible, sums up Manfred Laubichler, a professor in School of Life Sciences and one of Creath’s many close colleagues in the Center for Biology and Society and in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.